Papa Was A Rolling Stone

My dad called. After 14 months with­out con­tact.

Not that I was­n’t expect­ing it. He e‑mailed me two weeks ago (flagged with the lit­tle red excla­ma­tion point to note that it was impor­tant), telling me that he was hav­ing a par­ty on New Years. “Can you come and join us?”, it said.


Is he dat­ing now, I won­dered. Married?

I sat on this e‑mail, unsure of what to say. A lit­tle while before this, Merv struck up a con­ver­sa­tion with me about fish­ing. I told him I used to go to this one fish­ing spot at a lift-lock in Peterborough with my dad, and it made me won­der what I would say if I ever talked to him again. He did­n’t even know me when we were on speak­ing terms, how would he know me now? I’ve changed so dras­ti­cal­ly in the last year.

We nev­er left things off on bad terms. We just stopped talk­ing to each oth­er, so there was­n’t any ani­mos­i­ty, on my part, at least. I nev­er con­tact­ed him because I nev­er felt like it, and I was expect­ing years to go by before he con­tact­ed me.

Then he called on the week­end. It took me by sur­prise. I thought e‑mail was a way for him to stay dis­tant, while ful­fill­ing the min­i­mum parental respon­si­bil­i­ty. I had guests over and was enter­tain­ing and some­what charged up. He start­ed talk­ing to me in Chinese, and I could only reply in English. It was too much for my mind, and I was too much on my guard. So I told him to call me next week.

And he did.

He start­ing ask­ing me ques­tions, as if he was read­ing them off a list:

  • Is your life busy?
  • Are you busy at work?
  • Are you dat­ing any­one?
  • Have you been home (i.e. where I grew up, and where he lives now) late­ly?
  • Have you dat­ed any­one since your last girl­friend?1

I always keep my dis­tance, because my dad has always killed me with indif­fer­ence. I tell him things that are impor­tant to me, but he nev­er cares, and that’s what hurt me the most. I ask him how to say cer­tain phras­es in Chinese, to make him know that I’m inter­est­ed in the cul­ture. I tell him I’m going to Hong Kong next year with my friends, and I’ll be vis­it­ing grand­ma. No reac­tion.

He tells me he has Osteoporosis, that his broth­er has it too, so I should keep an eye out because they’re only now dis­cov­er­ing that it runs in the fam­i­ly. Calcium pills with vit­a­min B to help absorb it. He got a hair trans­plant that took five doc­tors and nine hours2.

It’s all a for­mal­i­ty to him. No ask­ing if there’s any news, no ask­ing if I’m hap­py. He pos­es the gener­ic ques­tions, I give him the gener­ic answers.

And of course, “Are you com­ing home?”.

I con­fessed this to Julie, and she was sur­prised at his audac­i­ty in ask­ing me after such a long time with­out con­tact. The strange thing is that I nev­er even thought about it like that.

Because I’ve nev­er expect­ed any­thing more from him.

  1. He react­ed with a bit of sur­prise to my answer. I was­n’t sure if it was because he expect­ed me to have dat­ed some­one, or whether he’s begin­ning to real­ize I may not car­ry on the fam­i­ly name. []
  2. My dad has always joked about trans­plant­i­ng my hair to his head, because mine grows so fast and thick, where­as his is thin and grey. He’s always dyed his hair black to cling to his youth. []


  1. I obvi­ous­ly don’t know the whole his­to­ry but it seems to me that he’s try­ing to reach out with­out real­ly know­ing how.

    I know that in my case, my mom is pret­ty much inca­pable of show­ing car­ing or ten­der­ness and I just assume it’s a gen­er­a­tional thing. Her par­ents sent her to board­ing school and so she nev­er learnt it from them.

  2. I per­son­al­ly think he con­tact­ed me because it’s what he should do, as soci­ety or friends or who­ev­er tells him, not because he knows it’s the right thing to do. It could be a gen­er­a­tional thing, it could be a cul­tur­al thing, it could be both. However, if, as an out­side observ­er, you get the feel­ing that he’s try­ing to reach out to me from what I’ve said, I should pay atten­tion to this.

  3. From my point of view. He’s prob­ing for a crack in your wall. To see if there’s any chance of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and reviv­ing the father/son rela­tion­ship.

    I tell him things that are impor­tant to me, but he nev­er cares, and that’s what hurt me the most.”

    Could this pre­con­cep­tion be ruin­ing any chance to anoth­er way of inter­act­ing with your dad? Because what­ev­er he does, this idea is first and fore­most on your mind? Is it blind­ing you?

    If you read just his actions and not his words he did this:

    Email you to warn you about con­tact­ing you… know­ing that you prob­a­bly don’t want to hear from him. He’s ask­ing polite­ly and brac­ing to be hurt.

    He calls you, with­out hear­ing an email reply, putting his ego on the line. You speak to him in English when you always used to speak to him in Cantonese.

    He calls you again, risk­ing anoth­er dejec­tion.

    I mean, how can a dad, who’s so used to the Cantonese cul­ture change fast enough to ask you the right ques­tions? How can he care about you and read your mind when you are from com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent child­hood back­grounds?

    These are the same ques­tions I am ask­ing myself.

  4. I think it’s hard for Asian par­ents to some­times bond with their chil­dren. They grew up in a time where you made sure your kids were fed, edu­cat­ed and stayed out of trou­ble. Keeping them emo­tion­al­ly hap­py and sound was­n’t exact­ly a top pri­or­i­ty. That makes asian kids who grow up here dif­fi­cult, because we yearn for that con­nec­tion but we nev­er get it.

    It’s hard deal­ing with peo­ple from anoth­er gen­er­a­tion and cul­ture, even if they mean well, it could come across as the oppo­site.

  5. Hello! Hair trans­plant? He’s feel­ing like he’s get­ting old­er and feel­ing guilty that he has­n’t con­nect­ed with you. Just because he has no clue how to relate to you does­n’t mean he does­n’t (some­where very buried) want to, even if it’s just because he’s real­iz­ing he’s slow­ly approach­ing a point­less demise.

    Whether it’s good for you to respond or not is ques­tion­able, because with com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills like his, he’ll still respond the way he always has, prob­a­bly not because he wants to, but sim­ply knows noth­ing else.

    My think­ing would be to give him a kind­ness he might not quite rec­i­p­ro­cate, and go — but don’t expect any­thing in return, and don’t cri­tique him for it after­ward. If any­thing good hap­pens, fine; if not, you did­n’t invest an emo­tion­al for­tune.

  6. @Causalien — I admit that I do have pre­con­cep­tions about our rela­tion­ship. However, I con­stant­ly probe the truth of these ideas by putting myself out there, offer­ing parts of myself that are per­son­al and inti­mate), if but a lit­tle at a time, and see­ing how he reacts. I do this because I still har­bour the hope that he’s changed, that I’ll have an actu­al father, and not just a dad. It’s always been the same, even with this phone call; indif­fer­ence.

    I’m guess­ing you meant he risks anoth­er “rejec­tion” instead of “dejec­tion”. I had­n’t actu­al­ly reject­ed him, for­mal­ly or oth­er­wise. He was­n’t risk­ing any­thing. Besides, even if he was risk­ing such a thing, I’d say that as a par­ent I would expect noth­ing less from him.

    The rea­son why I get let down from his inabil­i­ty to read me, is because I’ve bro­ken the cycle of cul­ture stub­born­ness. And if I was able to, he should have been able to as well. Do you think that, if you were a par­ent and you moved to anoth­er coun­try, you’d have a hard time adapt­ing to anoth­er cul­ture, and raise your kids as you were raised? Ask your­self this first.

    @Sophia — Making your kids emo­tion­al­ly hap­py and sound was­n’t a pri­or­i­ty at all with my par­ents. It does com­plete­ly come across as the oppo­site of love, to me, at least. And you’re right about the fact that it’s not only cul­tures, but gen­er­a­tions, that have this mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

    @xibee — Actually, my dad has always been one to try these youth-catch­ing things. For years, he’s dyed his hair black. He even got cos­met­ic surgery once to remove the liv­er spots from his face.

    I wish it was true that some­where in his sub­con­scious, he want­ed to con­nect with me. But I real­ly doubt it. As Sophia said, his only con­cern is that I’m well fed, and out of trou­ble (the edu­ca­tion part isn’t an issue any­more).

    Even if I stay dis­tant, show­ing kind­ness with­out expect­ing rec­i­p­ro­ca­tion hurts me more than it helps me, because I think of what I don’t have, and grow sad.

  7. This reminds me of the old­er broth­er of one of my best friends and neigh­bor. Their par­ents are Shanghainese, but the two sons grew up in Wisconsin. Every time we talked, I got the impres­sion he was just going through the motions. He would ask ques­tions like the ones you list­ed, mere­ly look­ing off into the dis­tance and not offer­ing any com­men­tary to the plen­ti­ful and open respons­es I gave. I wrote him off as one of those peo­ple who just goes through the motions and don’t care real­ly about peo­ple.

    I got to slow­ly now him. My friend was fight­ing leukemia, and for the last 3 or so months when it was clear he was los­ing, I saw a lot more of him. We spent time work­ing on the funer­al pre­sen­ta­tion and some of the details, and I dis­placed the feel­ing of unease because we had a com­mon goal. We lat­er drove my friend’s con­vert­ible from New England to Chicago togeth­er, which was a rather odd expe­ri­ence.

    Since then we’ve spo­ken a few times, and it’s the same pat­tern of speech. It throws me, and irri­tates me, that I can’t read him because he offers back so lit­tle. What’s dif­fer­ent now is that I know he loved his lit­tle broth­er, one of the best peo­ple I’ve ever known, and that puts a human face on his lack of expres­sion. We don’t nat­u­ral­ly get along because we have com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent pri­or­i­ties in com­mu­ni­cat­ing, and com­mu­ni­ca­tion is very impor­tant to me.

    One trick I did learn was to ask him hard ques­tions involv­ing self-reflec­tion and empa­thy. “What do you think of this…”

    I have no prob­lem talk­ing about stuff like that, but he does. He tries, though, to answer. Or he says he does­n’t think it’s impor­tant, and that’s OK with me because it’s his opin­ion. I think it would be dif­fer­ent, though, if I thought he was bull­shit­ting me.

  8. Perhaps the Chinese cul­ture has cre­at­ed this dis­tance, to deal with hor­ri­fy­ing things like the Cultural Revolution, where art, emo­tion, and love were replaced by ter­ror and sus­pi­cion.

    It’s inter­est­ing that you say it’s throws and irri­tates you every time you talk to this father, and he’s not even your father. I sus­pect it’s much worse when they’re relat­ed by blood. I’m a big believ­er in com­mu­ni­ca­tion as well, but mine always comes in the form of words, because I’m a ter­ri­ble read­er of body lan­guage. A rela­tion­ship, no mat­ter what kind, is based on com­mu­ni­ca­tion, and I agree that it’s frus­trat­ing when the oth­er per­son does­n’t offer any­thing back, because it feels like you’re doing all the work.

    Perhaps I should prod my father more, the way you prod­ded your friends, and ask him ques­tions that can’t be answered with one word. I’m pret­ty sure that he’ll give me good answers; he’s a smart man. The thing I’m afraid of is that he won’t ask me the same things, because he nev­er has in the past, and it’ll sim­ply con­firm how one-sided our rela­tion­ship is.

  9. For Osteoporosis, vit­a­min D help to absorb cal­ci­um, not vit­a­min B. Usually women tend to get more of it after menopause due to the hor­mone known as Estrogen which usu­al­ly help in absorb­ing the vit­a­min D. — Nice site -

    I don’t talk to my dad after he dis­own me cause he can’t afford to take care of me.

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